The TomTom Start is a standalone satnav device with a 3.5in touchscreen.
The standalone satnav market for casual drivers has been under threat for some time from smartphone-friendly GPS software, including CoPilot Live, Nokia Maps and Google Maps. But with the recent launch of TomTom for iPhone, at least some of those profits are destined to stay in TomTom's pocket.
While small screen sizes and fiddly controls meant smartphone navigation wasn't an instant hit, the Apple iPhone 3GS and its 3.5in screen, together with the several other screen-dominated touchscreen handsets currently available, have the power to change this. Few casual users would rather carry a second device, which costs twice as much as the equivalent mobile app, just for the sake of keeping things simple.
Of course, few are better than none, and TomTom is keeping its options open with the launch of its entry-level TomTom Start. At £119 for the UK and Ireland version, the Start costs exactly twice what you'd pay for TomTom for iPhone (provided you don't also require the £99 in-car kit).
But the TomTom Start is pretty smart, appealing to the less tech-savvy casual driver who wants a plug-and-go satnav that will keep things simple at a user-level and still offer the intelligent navigation technology we've come to expect from TomTom.
Indeed, TomTom has stripped down the TomTom Start's user interface to just two main menu icons: Plan route and Browse map. Things don't get more straightforward than this.
Other than whether you wish to use day or night colours, there's no way to alter the information shown on the TomTom Start's screen. This data includes your current speed and the speed limit, the road you're travelling on, the distance to your next instruction and your final destination, plus the estimated arrival time. You can't see an overview of your route, you can add only one stop en route and no separate transport modes are available. Neither will you find such features as multimedia playback apps, lane assistance, Bluetooth hands-free calls and Wi-Fi here.
Yet behind its basic appearance, the TomTom Start still offers the company's own intelligent IQ Routes and Map Share features that we've admired in its mid-range and high-end devices - more on this later. Safety-camera alerts and a good selection of points of interest (POIs) are also preinstalled, and more can be added from the intuitive TomTom Home desktop companion software.
TomTom Home is also the place to go for the purchase of new maps, comedy voices to replace dear old Doris (who can be turned down or muted during navigation), a selection of startup screens, themes and colour schemes and sounds. And the TomTom Start's customisation options don't end here - a choice of colourful fascias (yellow, orange, red, purple, green or blue) and matching carry cases are also available. These add-ons are known as StartSkins and cost £14.99 each.
If such frivolities don't catch your eye, the standard TomTom Start will. It isn't the sexiest satnav we've ever seen (if such a thing exists), but the build quality is good. Our review model was black; the £139 European model is also available in white.
The TomTom Start is compact, little larger than its 3.5in colour touchscreen, with an Easyport windscreen mount folded neatly into the rear.
The casing is very clean, with rounded corners and no LEDs or hardware buttons save for the power switch. We don't mind the lack of a stylus - the interface icons are large and easy to press, you can specify left-handed use and even opt to use a larger ABCD, qwerty or azerty keyboard for input - but an LED to denote its charging status would have been welcome.
That said, TomTom hasn't shied away from the norm and included a mains charger in the box. If you don't have the necessary cigarette lighter switch in your car to charge the TomTom Start in the conventional manner, the device can be charged from a PC via its bundled USB cable or a mains charger can be purchased separately for £19.
Despite its entry-level price tag, TomTom has included some of the features that make its navigation software stand tall among the competition. IQ Routes calculates the fastest route to your destination based on data it collates from other TomTom users for the actual speeds travelled on individual roads at any given time of the day rather than their speed limits.
As we mentioned in our review of the TomTom XL IQ Routes Edition (tinyurl.com/yk62p3v), however, this feature could be so much more if it were combined with standard traffic reports. Sadly, traffic message channel (TMC) isn't even an optional extra for the Start.
TomTom Map Share isn't a new feature, but it's worthy of note. We've all heard the horror stories of lorries getting stuck in country lanes and drivers being swallowed by lakes after blindly following the instructions of their satnav.
Map Share stops you making the mistakes that others have already made. Using this feature, map faults can be made known to TomTom and, after sending a company representative to verify the fault, the map is updated and that change is rolled out to other TomTom users via TomTom Home. And it isn't just a gimmick: in the 20 weeks since our review model was apparently last updated, TomTom Home reports an amazing 32,443 corrections waiting to be installed.
QuickGPSfix is another feature common to TomTom's line-up. In theory, this feature speeds up the process of finding a satellite signal at startup, reducing the amount of time you need to hang around waiting for the satnav to calculate your route.
While we've no scientific method of comparing the TomTom's startup times with other brands of satnav, we certainly felt that the Start was fairly quick to find a fix. Of course, it's possible to plan your route before you leave anyhow, either on the TomTom Start itself or via TomTom Home.
TomTom's much-praised Help menu is also present, offering your exact co-ordinates if someone needs to find you, or near-instant navigation to the closest mechanic, hospital, doctor, police station, pharmacy or dentist, complete with their phone numbers.
Some of these options seem more beneficial than others - with a limb hanging off or a crazed hitch-hiker in the back seat it's fairly obvious why you might want to find the nearest police station or hospital as a matter of urgency, but we're not sure we'd be so troubled by a toothache. Still, it's a nice feature.
Our review model didn't support full postcodes - a massive flaw. Thankfully, TomTom has promised to roll out this feature by the end of November 2009.
NEXT: our expert verdict >>